By Kami-Leigh Agard
April is Global Autism Month and one emblem you’ll likely see blazoned everywhere is the puzzle piece. After reading many blogs and listening to opinions about the puzzle symbol, I became curious as to its origin and why so many people vehemently loathe it. For example, an autistic woman said, “I hate the puzzle piece with every fiber of my being because it makes me feel that I don’t belong.”
Here’s a little history. In 1963, the puzzle piece was first adopted in London, England as the logo of the National Autistic Society. At the time, the organization stated, “The puzzle piece is so effective because it tells us something about autism: our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition that isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in.’”
Then, three decades later, in 1999, the Autism Society of America adopted the puzzle piece ribbon as a symbol of autism awareness. They stated, “The puzzle piece reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition.”
The most recognized use of the puzzle piece is through one of the largest, immensely funded organizations, Autism Speaks. Since its founding in 2005, they have used the blue puzzle piece as their logo on advertising campaigns with the National Basketball Association, and in their well-promoted Autism nationwide walks. Note that numerous autistic individuals and their families shun Autism Speaks because of their negative viewpoints about autism. For example, their “I am Autism” advertising campaign promulgated that autism “robs children of their dreams,” and that autistic children “live behind a wall.” Some people also question Autism Speaks for promoting the color blue as the color of Autism Awareness Month. As one autistic self-advocate blogger stated, “Blue implies that autism only appears in males or that males are more autistic than females.”
After many evolutions in design and meaning over the years, today, the puzzle piece has been co-opted by numerous autism advocacy organizations, including the local organization I founded, Rockaway Beach Autism Families. Our logo has the puzzle piece embedded with an ocean wave, a nod to our ocean-side home, Rockaway Beach.
As a mother of a 14-year-old on the spectrum, and my many exchanges with autistic individuals and their families, in my humble opinion—autism is a puzzle.
For example, Grace Moroney, an exceptionally intelligent and talented local 22-year-old on the spectrum, further opened my eyes to the vastness of the spectrum and why it’s indeed a puzzle.
Recently, she shared the following with me: “I just found out that I was autistic last year. Though I always knew I felt different, and now I know why, it still was a shock. I know I’m intelligent. When it comes to schoolwork, I’m great, but as for socializing with other kids, I’ve always had trouble making friends. Sometimes, autistic people get misdiagnosed, and they end up getting subscribed medicine for schizophrenia or clinical depression. However, as I learned more about autism, I discovered that a lot of famous people are autistic, such as Tim Burton and Einstein. Autism shouldn’t be something people should be ashamed of or be judged by. It’s a part of you. We just see and react to the world differently. This is why I believe both autism awareness and acceptance are important.”
In a Time Magazine op-ed, Jeffrey Lurie, chairman and CEO of the Philadelphia Eagles, hit the nail on the head with this: “What do football, political polarization and autism have in common? They all illuminate aspects of the human condition, explaining who we are, where we are headed and the hurdles along the way.”
As human beings, so-called neurotypical or not, we are all puzzles, oftentimes, struggling to understand why we are who we are.
I look forward to when more of the puzzle pieces start interlocking so individuals like Grace and my daughter discover more about themselves. While I don’t agree with the notion that the last puzzle piece should be the “cure” for autism, I overall embrace the symbol because it manifests the autistic community’s “artistic” wonders.
This Sunday, April 23 at 11 a.m., join Rockaway Beach Autism Families on Beach 96th Street and the boardwalk for Rockaway’s first-ever oceanside Walk for Autism. To register and for more info, visit: www.rockawaybeachautismfamilies.org or Facebook event page: “Rockaway Beach Autism Families Walk for Autism.”